America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding
(Robert R. Reilly, March 28, 2021)
About the book
The founding of the American Republic is on trial. Critics say it was a poison pill with a time-release formula; we are its victims. Its principles are responsible for the country’s moral and social disintegration because they were based on the Enlightenment falsehood of radical individual autonomy. In this well-researched book, Robert Reilly declares: not guilty. To prove his case, he traces the lineage of the ideas that made the United States, and its ordered liberty, possible. These concepts were extraordinary when they first burst upon the ancient world: the Judaic oneness of God, who creates ex nihilo and imprints his image on man; the Greek rational order of the world based upon the Reason behind it; and the Christian arrival of that Reason (Logos) incarnate in Christ. These may seem a long way from the American Founding, but Reilly argues that they are, in fact, its bedrock. Combined, they mandated the exercise of both freedom and reason.
Hello and welcome to the Westminster Institute. I am Bob Reilly, its director. Today we are doing something a little different. I will not be introducing a guest as today I am the speaker at the suffrance of Westminster’s founder and chairman of the board, Dr. Patrick Sookhdeo, to whom I sent a copy of my latest book, America on Trial: ADefense of the Founding. Patrick read the book and suggested that I give a Westminster talk about this subject, which otherwise would not have occurred to me. So fulfilling his kind wish, that is what I am going to talk about today, America on Trial.
Well, I do not think it is news to anyone that America is on trial, whether it is riots in the streets from last summer or attacks in the press from The New York Times 1619 project or otherwise in a way America has always been on trial. Certainly since 1776 at the time of the American Revolution it was on trial and at other times afterwards, most particularly during the civil war in the 1860s. America has been on trial in several world wars and other conflicts, usually ones that somehow involve on the opponent’s side a denial of America’s founding principle that all people are created equal, but I am getting ahead of myself. Let us start at the beginning and that beginning goes back very far indeed. I asked myself in this book what ideas made the American founding conceivable, from where did they come, what is their intellectual lineage?
Now, the reason I undertook this endeavor was because of a kind of attack that has been leveled against the founding that it itself is responsible for the depraved conditions in which we find the country today. Everyone pretty much knows that litany from a supposed homosexual marriage, widespread pornography, drugs, dissolution of the family, etc. Why has this happened to us? Did it happen despite the principles of the American founding or because of them?
This one school of thought has developed, indeed, it is popular in some Christian conservative circles that it is the founding’s fault. Why? Because the founding contained a time release poison pill and we are its victims. Why? Because they say the founding was invested with a radical enlightenment principle of individual autonomy. This was constrained so long as religion remains strong in the United States, but as religion has begun receding in the American population, ah, these principles of radical individual autonomy have come to the fore and they are responsible for the condition in which we find ourselves.
Of course, we can we can see this interpretation of the founding actually articulated in certain Dupreme Court decisions particularly those that were enunciated by then Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who frequently speaks of man’s autonomy, of his right to create for himself the meaning of the universe, and through the individual autonomy interpretation of the American founding, he curiously found in it the right to homosexual acts and then the right to homosexual marriage. Of course, preceding those was the right to abortion and now later, absent Justice Kennedy, we had the decision regarding transgenderism as a a right that had to be protected under equal protection.
Now, it is interesting that sectors of both the right and left agree that this radical individual autonomy was in the American founding. The left and others like Justice Kennedy embrace it. People who are more conservative deplore it but agree that it is there, that the founding is the problem. This book contests this interpretation and indeed posits that the historical evidence and a close examination of the founders, of what they thought and did, makes this interpretation insupportable.
Now, it is interesting that this interpretation goes back really no further than the enlightenment era in the 17th century, but the roots of the American founding, the ideas that made it conceivable are far older than that, and in this book I trace them. It is a long journey going back several thousand years, but I think without doing so, the case cannot be made that the American founding was indeed sound, that its principles were morally good and are defensible.
I begin the book by examining what life was like before Greek philosophy, before the monotheism of the Jews, and before Christianity. I examine, in short, what tribal life was like and we find in there a conception that the members of the tribe had of themselves only as members of a tribe adhering to the ways of their fathers and to the gods of the tribe. And the leaders of those tribes usually had some association, perhaps a direct lineage to one of the gods of the tribe, and so the ruler was perhaps a semi-divine person, and actually it was only through the ruler that the members of that tribe had access to the gods. Only he knew the magic words of the prayers to which the gods would listen to guarantee the harvests or to guarantee victory in battle.
No one thought of themselves outside of their tribal lineage and they knew members of other tribes only by the names of those tribes. They had nothing in common with them and if indeed they were in a state of war with them, which was a typical feature of tribal life, the tribe that won would usually kill all the males and enslave the females and the children, if indeed they did not kill everyone. Now, it would not have occurred to either side in such a struggle that there is something wrong with this because the losing side would have done absolutely the same thing had they won. There was no moral vocabulary, in other words, in the tribal universe that would have suggested that this was wrong.
Now, when Greek philosophy dawned upon mankind, say the sixth, fifth century A.D. observations were made of the following kind. There seems to be an order in the world and this order appears to be rational, and through our reason we can apprehend this order and come to understand it. Now, the first pre-Socratic philosopher to use the word logos to define the divine intelligence, he discerned that was behind this rational order, was Heraclitus. He said this logos, which is the Greek word for reason or word, was what imparted to the world this rational order and gave indeed our reason the means through which to come to understand it, and therefore we ought to live according to this logos, conform our lives to it to live, in other words, reasonably according to the laws that are apprehended in nature.
Aristotle, of course, took this much further by arriving at a notion of the laws of nature. Laws of nature are involved in what the essence of things, what makes them what they are and why they cannot be something other than what they are, and the ends toward which their nature directs them in the plant world. Let us say an an acorn has the nature of an oak, and given the proper conditions will grow into an oak unless something impedes it, a drought or too acidic soil. Otherwise, we know that this acorn will reach a state of completion, but Aristotle would call its perfection when it is a fully grown oak. In other words all the potentiality of that oak is reached when it arrives at completion, at full maturity, and that is how we know what a thing is.
Now, in the world of inanimate nature or animal nature, things act according to their natures. They have no choice but to do otherwise. Only when it comes to man can he make a choice regarding whether to act in conformity with his nature or to undertake acts that are against it. Now, just as Aristotle would say water is good for an oak tree, overly acidic soil is bad for it, when we come to understand what the end of man is, we can say the actions of man that he undertakes to reach his completion, his perfection, are good for him, and those actions he undertakes that impede his reaching his perfection are bad for him. In other words only with man because he has free will and reason is there a moral vocabulary of good and evil, and we know then through man’s nature that reason is morally normative for him. He is obligated to act according to those moral norms that will bring him to the state of perfection.
What are those? Aristotle like many other great philosophers said that the end of man is happiness. Well, how is this happiness achieved? He said it is achieved through the practice of virtue, therefore those acts which impede the virtuous acts are bad for them, those are vices. Now, this discovery that man has a nature and that reason is morally normative for him instills man with the capacity to now recognize another person as a human being because he knows now what a human being is. He knows that all men’s souls are ordered to this same good, this life of virtue and the end of happiness.
Now, this was expanded in by Socrates and others to the question of justice. Can we apprehend what is just through our reason or are we reduced to the tribal consideration of justice as simply the mores of the tribe or the ways of the fathers of that tribe, other tribes having different mores and different fathers, and therefore nothing in common with each other or do we have a justice that transcends the tribal order, that transcends the Greek polis so that we can say that justice is the same everywhere for everyone?
And indeed, Aristotle posited that natural law is the same everywhere for everyone, and Socrates gave his life for the proposition that there is an order that transcends the political order in which the good and the just are defined. When this was assimilated and articulated in Rome by the great natural law thinker Cicero, who had such an influence on the American founding, he said there is not one law or one justice in Rome and another in Athens, it is the same everywhere because human nature is the same everywhere.
You can see how this concept exploded the mindset of the tribal world and provided a key foundation stone for the American founding. Now, the other development in the ancient world, which was so profound and was also another essential foundation stone for the American founding, was the monotheism of Judaism. This was an extraordinary development because only the Jews in the Middle East conceived of god as one. They were in a sea of polytheism. All the surrounding cultures were polytheistic and indeed, many of them pantheistic. The Jews alone conceived of god as one Yahweh, and only they said this god Yahweh is transcendent.
No other Middle Eastern culture could conceive of their gods as being somehow above the world or the universe. They were within it. Indeed, up in the imperion, up in the highest part of that universe or world, but they they could not think of anything outside of that universe, and indeed, they thought that the world itself was eternal, that it had always existed and always would, and that a man was subject to a fate in it, and did a play thing of these gods, and that things were in this perpetual loop, everything that could happen would happen and then it would start all over again. You can see there was sort of an inherent futility to this conception.
Now, the Jews’ notion of creation cut through this idea, this transcending god created from nothing. The world was not eternal. He began it. He spoke through his word and things came into being as Genesis so majestically announces, and unlike the mythologies of these other Middle Eastern cultures. What they have is creation that comes from some primeval ooze, is the result of a conflict, of a fight between gods or between demiurges, a principle of evil and a principle of good or one of light and one of darkness, and they fight and the good demiurge subdues the evil demiurge, and thus we have some kind of order in the world. But this order could be temporary because that principle of evil is still there and in conflict and struggle with the principle of good or of matter with spirit and so forth. So what exists is not entirely good, it is infected with evil or matter or darkness. Only the Jews, again in Genesis, said no, creation was not born of conflict. It was spoken or loved into being by Yahweh and everything he made – in contra distinction to these other ancient cultures – everything he made was good as the refrains of the six days of creation end each line with, “And god saw that it was good.”
Everything he made was good. Matter was good. Matter was not evil as the Gnostics thought. And what was especially good and what god made man – why? Because Genesis informs us that man was made in the image and likeness of god. This, again, was an extraordinarily unique revelation to the Jews. No other ancient mythology contained this concept that man was made in the divine image of god himself, and this invested man with a kind of sacredness, an inviolability that, again, was alien to the experience of other Middle Eastern cultures. Man was had as his purpose this relationship with his creator god, who acted toward him providentially. Even though Yahweh was transcendent, he would act within history for the good of his people, the Jews.
Now, this monotheism, this creation ix nihilo, the goodness of creation, as you might imagine creates a greater sense of optimism than the ancient world would otherwise experience because of the inherent futility in their view of things. Salvation history begins with the Jews, which is to say really history begins with the Jews, that the loop is broken. Now, there is a beginning. There is a trajectory, which will reach a final end in god’s judgment, so here is the other foundation stone.
Also, I have got to add very quickly that the account of evil in Genesis is also unique. It is not in the world, that is it is not part of the initial creation. Evil enters the world through man’s disordered will and through his disobedience, man’s disobedience of course leads to his expulsion from the Garden of Eden and into this veil of tears, but this providential god does not abandon man, he promises some resolution to the problem that man has introduced in Creation and the promise of a messiah. As we know in the Old Testament the prophets indicate who this might be or what he might do and so within the Jews this expectation of the messiah is very keen.
Now, the third foundation stone I would like to address of course is Christianity. Christianity saw itself very much as a Jewish religion as Christ was a Jew. He of course claimed to be the messiah, and that it was through his sacrifice that this reconciliation with god was achieved, so the laws of ecclesiastical polity was well known and also Hooker had a profound effect on two other English thinkers, whom we can say had a direct influence on the American founding. One of course is John Locke, who refers to in quotes from Hooker frequently in his Second Treatise and the other is Algenon Sidney, who in his Discourses on Government also frequently refers to in quotes from Hooker.
Now, I need not expatiate on Locke’s influence on the American founding. It is very famous. Sidney, however, also had a direct and profound influence. He was considered a republican martyr by the English colonists. Now, Richard Hooker’s defense of reason and his restoration of these medieval constitutional principles had a more or less direct impact on the American founding because his book, Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity you can be sure was widespread in the American colonies because the Anglican Church was predominant in about half of those colonies.
Now, the interesting thing about the addition of Christianity to the view we have already provided is that it enhanced or gave a deeper understanding of what this image of god in man meant within Christianity is the revelation that the love for each individual person by god is infinite and that through his mercy and obedience, through god’s mercy and man’s obedience to god, he can reach an end that man in his natural state could not conceive of. Aristotle could not have conceived of it and that is a personal union with god in the sense that god offers to man his own divinity and eternal life.
Now, the inviolability of the individual person was enhanced by this, and how people ought to behave toward each other had to be considered within the context of this sacredness of the individual person. The other extraordinary thing within Christian revelation is not only that man had this personal relationship with god our father, familial relationship, but that his achievement of his end now is outside of the tribe, outside of the political order, outside of the empire. This was an extraordinary conception, again, alien to the ancient world but for the Jews.
Now, in that famous episode in the New Testament the Pharisees and Herodians try to trip up Jesus by giving him or he asks for a Denarius because they have asked him whether it is legal to pay taxes to Caesar. Jesus examines the Denarius and says whose image is on it? And they say Caesar’s, and he famously replies, “Give to caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” And the the New Testament records that the crowd acted with astonishment. Indeed, anyone would be astonished because this had never been said before.
And it meant, of course, that there was – now let us say – a division of power, the most important division of power that has ever been made, and that is between spiritual power and secular power. Christ acknowledges that there is a secular realm, which has its own autonomy or semi-autonomy in which Caesar or a secular ruler legitimately rules. However, there is a spiritual realm in which he does not have power, and this, of course, was at the origin of the famous two swords teaching that was developed early in the Middle Ages.
Now, as this teaching began to be articulated as early as the fifth century by Pope Delacious in a letter to the emperor, it was made clear that the pope had no authority to interfere in the secular rule by the emperor nor did the emperor have any right to interfere in the spiritual rule of the pope. Now, this is the most interesting thing that this meant that their man lived under a dual sovereignty, the sovereignty of the spiritual role and the sovereignty of the secular rule. In the middle ages this two swords teaching was instantiated to a more articulate and refined degree by the church and the princes and the kings.
Now, since these two sovereignties exercised their authority over the same subjects there is naturally some bumping and because the borders between the two spheres was not clearly defined except through a process in which each of them undertook this definition. In any case it was acknowledged by both realms, the spiritual and the secular, that they had their own sovereignties and this left men.
Now, the consequence of these two sovereignties is that neither of them was absolute, neither of them could claim complete authority over the person. It was a shared authority. Neither of them were absolute. This of course created a political space for freedom for medieval man. This may go against the popular imagination, but this indeed was true. Now, there were some other things that affected the development of constitutional principles or let us say the harbingers of modern constitutional principles in the medieval world that had assimilated these influences from let us say Athens, Jerusalem, and of course from Rome, which would I use as the term Christianity. And here is the way they addressed these truths in a way that had a profound political impact. It was generally considered within the middle ages that man had been created equal, that he was a rational creature with a free will.
Now, the question arose from where did the ruler the prince of the king get his authority? Did god invest him directly in the form of the divine right of kings or not? The near unanimous answer was no, god invested the people with this authority, and it was they through their consent who could then provide that authority to the king of the prince. In other words man’s equality was the foundation for the notion of popular sovereignty. If popular sovereignty exists, the conveyance of that authority to the ruler requires the consent of the people. That consent of the people can be expressed in a variety of ways, but it nonetheless comes with a covenant with the ruler. There are conditions which the ruler, the king, the prince must observe so long as they have that right to rule; popular sovereignty, representation, consent, the legitimacy of the political order in so long as the ruler observes the provisions in the covenant.
Now, what if the ruler does not? What if he begins ruling tyrannically? Again, the unanimous opinion of the middle ages was that people have a right to revolution against tyranny. Now, let me just give you an example of how this was developed. Interestingly enough it first came within canon law, the Justinian Code from the 6th century was rediscovered in the 11th century. It had a huge impact, particularly on the canonists and there was a principle within canon law or or let us say a ruling that said crodominus tanget of omnibus aprabari. Now, that is Latin for what touches all must be approved by all. What affects all must be approved by all.
This, however, was a principle that applied only to Roman private law. All it meant was that trustees of a property or trustees overseeing a minor had to be unanimous in their agreement for the disposition of that property or the direction of this minor. That is all it meant. It had no application outside of the private law. It really had no political application. Now, what these canonists brilliantly did was use this quote ‘omnis tanget principle’ and applied it to church corporations, which were really the first voluntary corporations that is consisted by the agreement of the members of the corporation in the history.
And how would these church corporations, which meant chapter councils, church councils, other church organizations, religious orders – how were they to rule themselves within this corporation? Along the lines of the quote ominous tanget principle and the way it came to be developed I think can I best give you an example from the dominican ordersaint dominic called for a convocation of the various dominican chapters in europe at which decisions would be made over how the dominicans would rule themselves and he asked that each chapter or abby would send representatives how would those representatives be selected by the consent of the monks or dominicans in that abbey or chapter those two representatives each she asked for would then be invested by those who had selected them with the power to agree or disagree with the proposals at this general conclave and then if a majority of the conclave through these representatives agreed to a proposition it then became the new rule in the order and and saint dominic made clear that he himself was subject to these decisions he was not above themhe this conclave was sovereign and so that is the way the dominicans ruled themselves from from that time forward.
Now, this spread to other religious orders and as the religious orders spread through europe particularly the dominicans to england you saw the principles by which they conducted their affairs seeping into the civil sphere and soon the early parliaments would also quote the quote on this tangent principle but affects all must be approved by all particularly when the king would require new revenues attacks this was an early instance of the famous cry of the American revolution no taxation without representation and this indeed is where it came from curiously enough it came from canon law in that medieval church and then developed within the civil law in the early parliaments.
Now, with this general unanimity that I have described to you one might wonder how is it then that we didn’t go straight from the middle ages without interruption since these principles were universally accepted to the American founding what came between that made indeed an American revolution necessary what came late in the middle ages was a different conception of reality indeed a different conception of god as to god’s nature that eventually affected political order and undermined the constitutional principles which we have been laying out here let us talk for a moment about william obakam was a priest who thought that theology had been compromised by what he called pagan philosophy that meant aristotle aristotle was the villain and that god actually was not constrained by the idea manhattan of what is just of what is right and wrong why because god is really pure will and power he can do anything god can do anything he is unconstrained.
Now, let us make this clear in the middle ages most particularly in the thought of thomas aquinas he said about the nature of god that in god’s essence it’s the divine intellect that is primary and the divine will is secondary this means the divine intellect rules the will follows the divine elect conceives of something and the will executes the word god said and then so it was. Now, what william of occam did was flip this relationship he said no no it’s not the divine intellect it is not reason which is primary, it is will and the reason is secondary is only an instrument of that will to find the best way to carry out what the will chooses the problem with this primacy of the will is that it’s impossible to differentiate one act of the will from another if there is no standard outside of that will by which to make a judgment and that is indeed what occam was proposing there is no such standard the will is predisposed to nothing but itself this is what we call in theology volunteerism after voluntars greek for will god’s pure will unconstrained by anything.
Now, what this had profound consequences for the notion aristotle’s notion of nature natural law according to arkham there was no natural law why because there was no nature and there was no order in nature because of this things just happened as a direct consequence of god’s will which and he could he could change that will at any instance so that confidence that reliability in creation that had been developed under judaism and Christianity up until this time kind of evaporates.
Now, the political consequences of this were seen later. It was not the intention akhem was not a politician it was not his intention to have this effect in the political order but so it developed and it was manifest particularly in martin Luther. Luther was an alchemist. He too was a bomb tryst he too like ankham believed that man’s reason was incapable of knowing right from wrong according to occam this was because if things have no nature reason is no longer normative if things have no ends within themselves one cannot say what brings them to perfection and what subverts them from reaching that perfection that’s all gone things are good and evil only insofar as god says they are and for no other reasons there’s nothing inherent in an act that makes it good or evil only if it disobeys what god tells you to do this you can see is the origin of sola scriptura scripture alone man has no access to moral knowledge Luther denounced the ethics of Aristotle as the worst book ever written and that Aristotle was close to being a devil in human form reason said Luther was the devil’s it no longer gave men access to this rational order those two swords that provided the most important separation of powers the spiritual power and the secular power was reduced now to one sword and it was the secular sword the sort of the prince that now obtained the spiritual powers so there was only one sword
Now, there wasn’t a dual sovereignty the prince became the head of the church it was to the prince luther looked for the reform of the churches it’s easy to see where this is going and how it laid the foundations for the divine right of kings and indeed luther believed that the people weren’t sovereign indeed they were not equal and if they weren’t sovereign certainly their consent was not required in their rule the king or the prince was received his power directly from god not through the people and therefore that prince or king was not accountable to the people but only to god and could rule the people with laws which he himself was not required to obey.
Now, what if that prince began to rule tyrannically did people have a recourse as they all believed in the middle ages they did to revolution against a tyrant Luther was emphatic and saying no they have no such right it does not matter what the prince does the people do not have a right to revolution. Now, after 1630 he modified this somewhat but that was the main force of the teaching and you could see now that every principle of constitutional government articulated in the middle ages was denied and this did lead to the divine right of kings and the concept of an absolutist state now there were two kinds of developments of this one was a secular absolutist state as articulated by thomas hobbes and his famous book leviathan and the divine right of kings absolutist state as articulated by King James I in England and by Sir Robert Filmer in his book patriarcha, which was famous as the most able defense of the divine right of kings.
Now, there was opposition to this and it arose in England in the late Elizabethan period before James I. The first Anglican theologian, Richard Hooker, wrote a profoundly influential book the laws of ecclesiastical polity in which he restored Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas to Anglican thought and by so doing he restored the status of reason he was reacting to radical puritans who were saying we do not need English common law we do not need the laws of parliament all we need are the laws of scripture and we will rule ourselves by those alone no said Richard Hooker reason is able to ascertain the laws of nature which laws are themselves a form of god’s revelation just as much as the scriptures are and that god expects us to use our reason to live reasonably and to create laws which are according to reason the other revelation in Christianity which had a profound effect came in the gospel of saint john the introduction of which says the gospel is in Greek in the beginning was the word but in Greek the word is, of course, logos.
Let us keep it for a moment in the beginning was the logos and the logos was with god. Logos was god. All things are made through him as logos so now we know why there is this rational order in nature, because its creator is himself reason. Now we know we have this confirmation of Heraclitus’s intuition that this divine intelligence behind reality is logos, his reason. And so you have a startling confirmation of this when, let us say, god introduces himself as logos in the Gospel of Saint John. Thomas Jefferson recommended Discourses on Government, which he said was the greatest primer on republican government at the University of Virginia that should be read by all its students. Now, Sidney was a very well-grounded natural law thinker so we could see within his work everything we have articulated so far in terms of of the law of reason a natural law and what that leads to in the development of the constitutional principles which he advocated in which the founders of the United States embraced.
Now, John Locke was of course a fierce opponent of the divine right of kings and his first treatise is a devastation of the pretensions of Sir Robert Filmer in defending the divine right of kings and Patriarcha both he and Sydney were aware of the work of two thinkers Robert Bellarmine in Italy and Francisco Suarez in France, who had also used natural law and the medieval constitutional principles to attack the pretensions of James I, who was so infuriated with Suarez that he had his his works burnt in public by the public executioner and who was so upset by bellarmine that he engaged him in an exchange of monographs very unusual for a monarch to address a commoner and engage in this back and forth he felt he had to do it because the arguments of bellarmine were so powerful this was acknowledged by Sir Robert Filmer too because in Patriarcha he had to, quote, “Give the argument from Bellarmine in order to rebut it,” and he did the same thing regarding the arguments of Suarez.
Now, this is significant because both Sydney and film are I am sorry both this is important because both Sydney and Locke in their arguments against Filmer’s position were also familiar with what bellarmine and Suarez we are saying because it was in Filmer’s book so it is curious that this Italian cardinal and this Spanish Jesuit had also an influence on this you know even if indirectly on the American founding because Patriarcha Filmer’s argument was also a book present in the American colonies. In fact, it was present in Thomas Jefferson’s library. He had a copy with notes marked up. He also was familiar with the natural law and constitutional arguments by Bellarmine and Suarez as he was, of course, with Locke and with Sydney.
So you can see all of these forces against absolutism, against the divine right of kings, conjoined and helping form the minds, the American colonial mind, and the thinking of the founders so that they rose in 1776 against the expression of absolutism in the British Empire, which had gravitated somewhat from the king, from George III, to the British Parliament, which in the 1760s had passed a law, the Declaratory Act, saying that it could pass any law affecting the colonies, it was not restricted on any matter whatsoever without, of course, the consent of the colonists.
This was the battle cry the colonists then considered themselves by these same constitutional principles and the rule of reason the rule of natural law to have had those rights violated because they were being ruled without their consent therefore their revolution was a restoration of those principles a restoration of the rule of reason as against the rule of will and power American legitimacy is based upon that rule of reason and it is articulated so famously in the Declaration of Independence where according according to the laws of nature and of nature’s god man is created equal and he is endowed with certain inalienable rights; life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. The declaration that lists a long set of grievances against George III, each of which involves a transgression against the colonists in manners in which they are being ruled without their consent.
Well, in this very concentrated way and condensed way I have been trying to set the case against those who say that this American founding was based upon some radical enlightenment individual autonomy that it was no such thing but it was a restoration of these ancient principles that it was a restoration of the rule of reason as against the rule of will and a restoration of natural law as morally normative in man’s behavior now when we arrive at that part of the Declaration that says among these inaudible rights is man’s pursuit of happiness those who say that the founding is infected with this radical individual autonomy say aha this pursuit of happiness that means a libertine state this leads to transgenderism.
Well, no, actually not the happiness to which the founders referred in the Declaration of Independence. The happiness which Aristotle, Aquinas, Hooker, all of these seminal thinkers to which I have referred is the object of man’s life and is the object of his government. Now what does that happiness consist as we mentioned earlier in the life of virtue and so forth? And if there is anything about which the American founders agreed, it is that virtue was indispensable most particularly to the republican form of government which they had chosen. And George Washington famously said in his first inaugural address that there was, quote, “An indissoluble union between virtue and happiness.”
In other words this happiness could not be pursued but by virtue and a virtuous life. Another thing — and, by the way, there were any number of Christian sects, the colonies were overwhelmingly Christian. Despite whether they were Anglican, they all agreed with this and those few theists like Franklin agreed with it too — virtue was indispensable. And what was the primary source of virtue? Again, here they agreed was religion.
Religion was indispensable to the development of virtue and virtue was indispensable to the republican form of government, and if you wish to keep this republican form of government, the virtue of the American citizenry was primary. Therefore you can see that there is no room for an idea of radical, individual autonomy within this, where man gets to make up his own meaning of the universe. No, no they said that the meaning of the universe had already been determined by the laws of nature, of nature’s god. Its creator had already determined its meaning and that meaning, this predominantly Christian nation knew for man, was his own end in that god.
This is another profound thing about the American founding, that the colonists and the founders never looked to the state to displace religion or to assume upon itself a salvific role where it is the government that is somehow going to save man. No, the government had no such means. It had no such end within itself. Remember the separation of the secular and the spiritual authority is the most important separation of powers ever made, and it was distinct and kept distinct within the American foundings and within the American constitution, which made further separations of powers, of course, in the judicial, legislative, and executive to limit that power. Power will not be limited unless there is a conception of the meaning of life, which does limit it, and if man’s end is in a transcendent god, then the state cannot assume these absolute powers or absolute direction in man’s life to make this clear.
In the book I have a chapter comparing the French and American revolutions. The French revolution was essentially different from the American revolution. It contained a notion of the perfectability of man that was articulated by the Marquis de Congresses and others, that man could be perfected and that the state really was the agent through which this perfection could be reached so long as the state had sufficient power to direct it.
Now, the principal enemy of this enterprise in the French Revolution was not surprisingly Christianity itself, and it is why the French Revolutionaries undertook the extraordinary campaign of de-Christianization within France, the deportation of 25000 priests, the slaughter of other priests and nuns on the guillotine, the desecration of churches, knocking crosses off of cemeteries, melting down the church bells for coinage or bullets, to gain an adequate contrast between the French and American revolutions.
All one would have to ask oneself is would a de-Christianization campaign during the American Revolution have been conceivable? Of course not, it was inconceivable. There the Declaration and the Constitution were dated in the year of our lord unlike the beginning of the French Republic, which began sort of the year zero, began the calendar again. In fact, it changed the calendar to de-Christianize it so that there was no Sunday, there were 10 days to the week and so forth. This was radical. You want radical individual autonomy? Do you want an effort in which man himself reaches a state of self-divinization premised upon the power of the state, which will enforce the programs to make that necessary, albeit in a sea of blood?
If you want to prototype for the revolutions that were to follow in the 20th century that were totalitarian, the Nazis, the soviets, you have an origin in that French Revolution that provided the prototype for it and that is how different it was from the American Revolution, which was the principal opponent of those 20th century totalitarianisms that denied the existence of natural law, that denied the equality of all men, one based on racial superiority and the other on class superiority, and that tonight, of course, in the case of communism, the existence of god you see in those totalitarianisms the primacy of force, the primacy of will as against the primacy of reason. It was articulated in the American Revolution so I do not think that there is a case that can be made for this critique of the American founding as based upon radical enlightenment notions of individual autonomy.
In the book I go into some detail about what the American founders actually said that were so contrary to any such notion, and it is why it was a conservative revolution, it is why it returned man to that course of constitutional democratic rule, which had been erupted by the age of absolutism. Well, I want to thank you very much for your patience and listening to this very condensed summary of America on Trial the Defense of the Founding. And I again want to thank Patrick Sookhdeo for suggesting that I do this. By the way, please go to our Westminster foundation website where you will see our other interesting recent videos of lectures on such subjects as Russia, China, and others and please stay tuned for what we have coming up next. Thank you for joining us.